Is big business dangerous? A writing prompt

In my recent reading, I came across two passages written almost a century apart about big business.  Together they offer mature high school students and adults an opportunity to do close analysis of a text.

books from which quotes comeThe passages for analysis

These two sentences are from English novelist John Galsworthy writing in his 1928 novel Swan Song, which is part of his famous Forsyte Saga.

One sees more and more…the really dangerous people are not the politicians, who want things with public passion—that is, mildly, slowly; but the big business men who want things with private passion strenuously, quickly. They know their own minds; and if we don’t look out they’ll wreck the country.

This sentence comes from historian Philipp Blom in his 2015 book Fracture: Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938:

Today, a real revolution would have to turn not against the seat of government but against the headquarters of the corporations whose political, social, and cultural influence has so vastly increased that presidents and prime minister seem to be little more than decorated puppets placed at center stage for cosmetic purposes.

Directions for students

Both these quotations warn that big business is dangerous.Examine the two author’s comments carefully. To help you analyze the comments, consider these questions:

  • Are their reasons for fearing big business the same?
  • Is the threat they perceive identical?
  • Do they each define big business the same way?
  • Is big business the only threat the writers see?
  • Do they suggest some fears that they don’t state?
  • If you hadn’t been given the date of each quote, is there internal evidence that would let you tell which is the earlier?

The formal writing prompt

Write an informative/expository text in which you discuss three reasons why, according to the writers, big business poses a potential danger to the their countries. Be sure you explain what the danger would look like if it became a reality. Would it, for example, ruin the economy or cause a revolt that would topple the government?

Please keep your text to no more than 550 words.

You can use bare bones writing skeleton™ like this to organize your thoughts:

  • Big business is dangerous because [reason 1]
  • Big business is dangerous because [reason 2]
  • Big business is dangerous because [reason 3]

Make sure your reasons don’t overlap.

Note to teachers

Students won’t have trouble preparing the writing skeleton™,  but they will have difficulty coming up with more than just the writing skeleton. They have to dig deeper to figure out the deeper significance of the phrasing the authors use. In work by good writers, the details matter.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

Packed sentences to be unpacked as writing prompts

Good writers have an uncanny ability to pack a great deal of experience into a single sentence. Today I’m going to offer writing teachers three quotations from three very different sources from which mature teens and adult students can choose one to unpack and share how the truth of the quoted passage can be applied to some living person (or group) or to some situation in the world right now.

similarly shaped black blocks of varying sizesHere are the three items with a note about the source of each one.

A dad’s advice

In John Galswothy’s novel To Let, Jolyon Forsyte says this to his son, who is 20 and in love:

Wishes father thought but they don’t breed evidence.

A widow’s observation

Mrs. Cartwright, an elderly widow who has just lost her husband, says this to Barnaby Gaitlin, the central character of Anne Tyler’s novel A Patchwork Planet:

Isn’t it ridiculous how even in the face of death it still matters that the price of oranges has gone up, and an impolite produce boy can still hurt your feelings?

An historian’s question

Who can say how much a man believes when he has an actor’s temperament and a demagogue’s faith in numbers?

Literary historian Van Wyck Brooks asks this question in his  1936 book The Flowering of New England 1815-1865, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937.  The man of whom he is speaking is  George Bancroft, whose multi-volume History of the United States began to appear in 1834.

What students must do

Each of the three sentences conveys more than its words literally mean. They convey something of the attitude of the speaker and his/her relationship to the person or persons alluded to in the quotation. Students need to take into account the context in which the words are spoken.

With an assignment like this, I often have students pair off and take 10 minutes of class time to discuss first impressions of each of the options. Hearing a different voice than their own sometimes sharpens a student’s perspective. 

I suggest giving students a limit of 300 words to explain the meaning of the quote they chose and the contemporary person or situation to which they think the quoted passage bears a kinship.

Value of this assignment

This assignment is a good segue from a writing course that’s been focused for a half year on nothing but nonfiction reading and writing to a course that pulls in both literary nonfiction and fiction as writing topics. Used in that manner, the assignment could be used as a benchmark to allow students to track their progress in understanding literary writing. (By benchmark, I mean that you record the grades to show entry-point skill. Course grades should be determined by end-of-course performance and should drop early score when students are figuring out what to do.)

©2020 Linda Aragoni